This is the transcript for Community Broadband Bits Episode 262. Harold Feld and Christopher Mitchell discuss Microsoft's announcement on TV White Spaces and what it means for rural areas. Listen to this episode here.
Harold Feld: It's the openest public airwaves, because we actually let the public use it.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is Episode 262 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. TV White Spaces and White Space Technology has been in the news lately. Microsoft recently announced a plan to use White Spaces to bring high-speed internet access to rural areas across the country. This week, Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, takes some time to talk with Christopher about the announcement and White Space Spectrum. Microsoft has raised a stir with their proposal, and Harold explains why. Before we start the interview, we want to remind you that this is a commercial-free podcast, but it isn't free to produce. Please take a minute to contribute at ILSR.org. If you're already a contributor, thank you for playing a part in keeping our podcast going. Now, here's Christopher with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I'm talking today with Harold Feld, the senior vice president for Public Knowledge. Welcome back to the show, Harold.
Harold Feld: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you've been working on for a very long time is something called TV White Spaces. Why don't you tell us a little bit about what they are?
Harold Feld: Yeah, so this is always very confusing, because like a lot of things, the name doesn't actually make any sense if you're not immersed in this. In wireless spectrum talk, white spaces are frequency bands that haven't been assigned to anyone, because they appear -- Usually, if you have a chart of how spectrum is allocated, who's doing what in which frequency bands. Something that has not been assigned to anybody appears in white, so engineers call that a white space. So, television needs a lot of these because television's very old technology. It uses very powerful transmitters, and the way it was developed was that to prevent interference from television stations interfering with each other, or radio stations interfering with each other, you had to have spaces between the channels. So, in every market, there are these empty television channels. In a lot of markets there are a lot of empty television channels, but there just isn't enough -- There aren't financial reasons to have lots and lots of channels in the less crowded areas, but even in places like New York City or Los Angeles, you have a lot of these empty channels called white spaces, and for a long time now, people have been pointing out that the technology for wireless has advanced to a point that you can let people use low-power devices in these unassigned TV channels, these TV White Spaces, and use them to do things like Wi-Fi, or other kinds of internet access services like Bluetooth or these other things. And because these frequencies are what we call low band, their physical characteristics make them very valuable and very useful, even at low-power. So, if you've ever set up Wi-Fi in your house, you'll notice that sometimes there's a wall or something, and you can't get through it, and you need to put another router on the other side. With TV White Spaces, the way this works, those frequencies will go through solid objects a lot more easily, and they travel further. So, it lets you set up these devices, sometimes they call this super Wi-Fi, so that you can use fewer routers to provide coverage. They can work in places where standard Wi-Fi frequencies don't work, so this has been a really important FCC proceeding for a while now.
Christopher Mitchell: And this is something that we've talked about, it's been deployed. Certainly we've actually with Don Means before, and the work that they're doing with the gigabit libraries project. So, this isn't anything particularly new. What does the Microsoft announcement that they're going to be working with local groups to deploy more of these white spaces networks, what does that mean?
Harold Feld: Every technology goes through a bunch of different phases. It starts to come out in the first generation technology. People get very excited about it, then you have the real world developments. People have to go back to the drawing board, tweak things. But then for a lot of technologies, there's a second act that when the pieces, as Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith said in his presentation on this, there's a moment when things gel and it's ready to roll out, and companies are ready to make a commitment. So, we had white spaces rules were finalized in a way that was useful in 2010, so that was about seven years ago. The first generation technology came out around 2012, 2013 when you've seen some first generation deployments in this, Don Means a couple of others. Those real world experiences got taken back to the drawing board. Microsoft has been doing it not just here in the United States, but in a lot of places outside of the United States as well, and their announcement says, "Okay, this is now ready to go big. We're ready to invest in it, you'll get the economies of scale." Think about the difference in cellular coverage from the early 90s to late 90s. We first started cell phones out in the late 80s. Big, brick things that were basically toys for rich people, and everyone was like, "Oh, that's crazy. Why would I ever want that? It's super expensive." But then the technology changed. We went from 1G to 2G, the second generation wireless technology, and suddenly the technology was better, the phones were lighter, and they became a lot of affordable for people. A lot more companies started getting into it, started building towers, and in just a few years in the 1990s, we went from almost nobody having a cellular and very few wireless networks being deployed, to lots of people having wireless phones, and national coverage built virtually overnight. That was the moment when things came together. When we look back now, with our 4G stuff, that was just so super primitive, but at the time, it was amazing and revolutionary to people, just how quickly mobile phones came to be deployed in the years between 1994 and 2000, whereas the technology had been approved all the way back in the mid-1980s, and nothing much happened until we got to the '94, '95. So, we're seeing the same thing here, and Microsoft's announcement is really the seed that brings it all together.
Christopher Mitchell: One of our mutual friends, Matt Rentenden, has been also using the TV White Spaces, and he was noting that it's pretty expensive to deploy. It's on the order of 800 to $1,000 per unit, and one of the things you were telling me is that we would expect that price to be dropping now with Microsoft's commitment.
Harold Feld: Right, exactly, because it's all about the economies of scale. Brad Smith, again, in his speech, held up an Adaptrum unit and said, "Right now this costs $800. By next year it's going to cost $200." So, that's a big drop. That's because when you have a company like Microsoft that comes in and says, "We're now betting on this technology for a whole bunch of different things, not just for rural broadband, but for precision farming, a whole bunch of internet of things type platforms," we're going to buy enough of these units to start driving the price down, and that's something that can have a really quick, dramatic effect. I mean, again, we saw this with cell phones, where the prices came down very dramatically. We saw this with laptop computers, which used to be $5,000 devices, and then now you can get them cheap. We saw this with Wi-Fi. Unlicensed spectrum, where Wi-Fi takes place, was approved by the FCC in the 1980s. It took them til 1999 for the IEEE standards body to approve what is the kind of core Wi-Fi standard, and the first year or two it was -- Those were pretty expensive gadgets, but then people started putting them in every laptop, and that kind of economy of scale drove the price down to be very cheap, so people started trying to networks with them, and now we expect to find Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere we're going.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the interesting things that's been a reaction is the broadcasters seem not just opposed to this, but really over the top in terms of making really outlandish claims about Microsoft being a bad actor, and this and that. Why are they so upset?
Harold Feld: Well, I mean, there are a couple of things here. One is the broadcasters have always been junkyard dogs in terms of defending what they see as their spectrum. Now, of course, it's the public airwaves. You don't own this stuff, and broadcasters in particular, who got this for free, are treating it like, "Hey, this is our backyard. Even the stuff we're not using is our backyard, and everybody keep out of it." And unfortunately, that's very typical of the way the broadcasters behave. This goes back a long, long way when the FCC was actually looking at opening up the rules back in the 1980s, as I said, for unlicensed technologies. The broadcasters were able to keep the FCC from opening up any kind of underlay in their frequency bands because we're special and you shouldn't do this, even though you're putting it in a lot of other places. But we're special, and don't mess with us. So, there's just a history there of them being all like this, but additionally, there's a financial thing. Broadcasters are actually going to the FCC right now, asking for free spectrum. They're saying, "Hey, we want to upgrade the digital television standard from what it is now," which is something called ATSC 1.0. They want to upgrade this to something that's called ATSC 3.0, and that technology would let them offer much more easily the same services that people are talking about, offering using the TV White Spaces, except they would be able to charge people for them rather than have people just do them themselves. So, they are trying to keep competitors out, while they push the FCC to give them freebies. There's a delightful irony here of the head of the National Association of Broadcasters getting out there and saying, "It's true. We got our spectrum for free. We're right now asking the FCC to upgrade our spectrum access for free. We want to be able to use these white spaces ourselves for free, but Microsoft is bad because they could have bought stuff at auctions and didn't." And again, the thing that's most frustrating to me as somebody who doesn't have a product is TV White Spaces is unlicensed open spectrum. It's like Wi-Fi; nobody owns Wi-Fi. It's not like open this up, that was like a giveaway to Sysco or Broadcom, or anybody who makes the Wi-Fi routers and sells the equipment. No, it's anybody can use it. It's the openest public airwaves, because we actually let the public use it, and only in Washington DC could opening up the public airwaves to the public be called a giveaway by a lobbying organization.
Christopher Mitchell: I have to say, it strikes me as saying that public parks are a giveaway to the frisbee industry.
Harold Feld: Right, exactly. Or, in the copyright world, it's like saying public domain is a giveaway because it somehow doesn't let Disney own Mickey Mouse forever.
Christopher Mitchell: The last thing I wanted to make sure we covered was just what we can expect from this technology, because the term super Wi-Fi, I think, might lead people to believe that it's super in terms of being insanely fast, where I don't think it's as fast as Wi-Fi even is today. The super part is that it's much more capable of going through obstacles. So, what kind of speeds might we expect from this equipment?
Harold Feld: Yeah, I mean, look -- And again, it's important to recognize that TV White Space isn't so much a technology as a bunch of frequencies we're opening up so that people can develop new technologies. Right now, and again, it's important to keep in mind there's a difference between speeds you get in the laboratory, versus speeds that you can actually get in the real world. Right now, I think what they're talking about is putting out networks that would operate at 45 megabits per second, symmetrical both ways, which, in a lot of rural areas, is much better than what you now. Even for a lot of folks in urban areas, if you do it cheaply and affordably, that's better than the options that are available at much higher prices from the cable companies. The problem is wireless is very complicated, and we're talking about devices that are operating at comparatively very low power. Television stations operate at 50,000 watts. Your TV White Space device is operating at one watt for the fixed devices, even less than that in microwatts for the more mobile devices when those come out. So, the other thing that people have to keep in mind is your speed or your broadband network isn't just about the wireless part, it also then depends a lot on the back haul, what's available. If you're using wireless to bring it back to some place where it will land on fiber for back haul, then every hop cost to you moves from one tower to another, costs you more speed. So, we're probably talking initially things that are more in the range of 10 megabits per second down with potentially the same or slightly less up. So, initially, this is going to be good for people who don't really have anything, and it will give them stuff that's useful, but not up to where it needs to be. Now, again, the technology's going to keep getting better as it moves along, and the Microsoft folks have said, "We're depending on a bunch of other inputs; we're depending on the FCC doing things to make it possible to use the spectrum more effectively; we're depending on finding ways to do things like getting fiber out, not in the communities to serve the communities, at least close enough that we can use it as back haul for the networks that are set up with these TV White Space devices." So, everybody should keep in mind -- Listeners should keep in mind that we're at the beginning here. In rural areas, you have a lot of open TV White Spaces, because you have a lot of unused channels. That gives you a lot of capacity so you can get better speed on the wireless side, but that's offset by having, in a lot of places, still needing to use copper, or some kind of wireless for you back haul. So, that drops the parent speed. I would say look for this to be more like eight to ten megabits locally, at least in the first generation deployments.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for that. I want to thank you for your -- All the information you've given us, the advocacy you've done, and also recommend that if people aren't reading your Tales From the Sausage Factory, it's both entertaining and informative, so thanks for that as well.
Harold Feld: Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Harold Feld from Public Knowledge, talking with Christopher about different white spaces and a recent commitment from Microsoft to work with ISPs in order to bring connectivity to rural areas using white space technology. Check out our stories on white spaces at MuniNetworks.org, including information on several library projects. Also, if you go to publicknowledge.org and investigate their information on spectrum reform, you'll find more. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power, and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to Episode 262 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.